Mitsaris, whose father also worked in coal mining, bought 44 hectares of vineyard. But he now wonders if he made the right choice — coal refuses to stop here.
“I’m afraid of the future,” he said. “I have two young daughters to raise.”
Just a year ago, Greece was confident it could shut down all existing coal-fired power stations by 2023. It planned to build one last coal-fired power station this year in the wider region where Mitsaris lives, western Macedonia, which will generate more than half of the country’s electricity. The new plant, Ptolemaida 5, would then run by 2025 on natural gas, another polluting fossil fuel, but one that is generally less carbon-intensive than the lignite, or lignite, found in this part of Greece.
That whole timeline has now gone up in smoke.
The changes are already noticeable. In June 2021, coal generated 253.9 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity. In June, coal was responsible for 468.1 GWh, almost twice as much.
And this is as the country fights wildfires on the mainland and its islands, fueled by a scorching heat wave fueled by climate change — which comes primarily from humans’ burning of fossil fuels such as coal. The fires have reduced houses to ashes, people have been rescued from beaches and entrepreneurs on islands like Lesvos are facing an economically painful holiday season.
Important life choices, such as where to live and work, are difficult to make when government plans keep changing. For Mitsaris, leaving his village where he was born and raised is not an option at the moment.
“My wife used to work in a dairy, which was also closed a few years ago. They offered her a job in Athens, but then my salary was enough to support the whole family, so we decided to stay,” he said. “If I had known that we would end up in the situation we are in now, I would have gone to Athens.”
The Greek government is trying to convince the people that the return to coal is only temporary. But the resurgence of coal is tempting people in Western Macedonia back into the industry.
The energy company PPC has provided permanent employment to thousands of people in Western Macedonia, where nearly 1 in 5 are unemployed.
Here — where everyone refers to coal as a “blessing and a curse” — a return to fossil fuel can make the difference between staying and leaving.
So many have already left for bigger cities, or have even moved abroad to find a new life.
A village in decline
But the transition has always had its challenges – above all, what opportunities can the country offer former workers in coal towns?
In western Macedonia — which supplies 80% of Greece’s coal — the PPC has expropriated dozens of villages so it can mine the coal below and relocate entire communities to the periphery. And they were the lucky ones.
During this tricky intermediate phase – in which coal is still being mined but the years are numbered – the inhabitants of the village of Akrini cannot move, even if everything around them collapses.
Residents here have been in contention with the PPC for more than a decade, saying they are entitled to compensation that will help them move out of the village, which has been exposed for years to high levels of ash from the coal mines that surround them. They successfully lobbied for the right to be relocated, which is now enshrined in a 2011 law.
The PPC told CNN in an email that it was not responsible for the people in the village, and did not answer follow-up questions when they were given the law stating they are entitled to help with moving by 2021.
Charalambos Mouratidis, 26, doesn’t really know what to do.
Like Mitsaris, he has tried to build a new life after leaving a job with the PPC in a coal mine, where his father also worked. But Mouratidis never had the same job security as his father. He worked eight months in shifts on a short-term contract to clear the ashes from the machines in the mine. The instability, low wages and heavy impact of the toxic ash on his health pushed him out of the industry.
He now runs a cattle ranch, which sits on a hill overlooking Akrini, while plumes of smoke and steam rise from the chimneys and cooling towers of the surrounding coal-fired power plants in the background.
In addition to his livestock farming, he works a second job for a solar panel company, typically spending 13 hours a day between them to make ends meet.
Working at the solar panel company is a green job that brings Mouratidis some extra income. But solar expansion is also taking up more and more land, leaving less for cultivation or grazing, so getting permission to expand farmland in Akrini is nearly impossible, he said.
In addition to the solar parks, all other infrastructure projects in Akrini have been cancelled. The village is left to die slowly.
“I started farming hoping to have a more stable future, and now even that effort is at stake,” Mouratidis said. “Everyone has reached a dead end in this village.”
What is next
The Greek government has devised a 7.5 billion euro ($7.9 billion) plan to help transform the country from a fossil fuel-based economy to a green, innovative nation. The Just Transition Development Plan, as it is known across the European Union, has received €1.63 billion in EU funding.
Western Macedonia is a focus in the plan and should get a lot of money, in part to become a renewable energy center in the country. And while the plan is welcomed by many here, many doubt it can all be realized in the six years before the last coal-fired power plant goes offline.
Mouratidis is skeptical that the money will help him at all.
“I’m not sure a lot of it will reach people like me who run small businesses. Some of the money goes to those who openly support the current government and most of it stays with those who manage these funds.” he said. “This is what history has shown us. Even during Covid-19, the support for large companies and corporations was much higher than the support we received.”
But not all hope is lost. With many workers moving from coal to agriculture, some EU support is trickling in. Just a few kilometers from Akrini, Nikos Koltsidas and Stathis Pashalidis are trying to create sustainable solutions for those who have lost their jobs in the green transition and want to get involved in sheep and goat farming.
“We want to create a network of subsistence farms, respectful of the environment and animals, that will require very little capital from new farmers,” Pashalidis said, his sheep bleating in the background.
Koltsidas said he wanted to let the locals know that agriculture is not what it used to be and can provide a stable future. “It doesn’t require the effort it did in the past where the farmer had to be on the farm all day to graze the animals or milk them with their hands,” he said.
“For those who are thinking about going back to coal, they should look at all the regions that are doing without coal,” he said. “There’s no need to get stuck in these outdated models of the PPC.”